Reaching displaced people in Uganda with crucial COVID-19 vaccines
How UNICEF is supporting those fleeing conflict and instability.
Uganda is home to a large population of refugees, many fleeing conflict and instability in bordering South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over 1.5 million people have sought safety in the country. More than half of them are children.
The Palorinya Refugee Settlement, in the northwest of the country, is home to some of these children.
Seventeen-year-old Rose, who was forced to leave her home in South Sudan, now lives in the settlement. She and her family travelled south for three weeks, eventually crossing the border into Uganda.
But her mother fell ill, and wouldn’t survive the journey. After a turbulent time, Rose began rebuilding her life as a pupil at one of the schools situated in Palorinya – the Luru Primary School.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on her. Lockdowns disrupted her education, pushing Rose further into isolation.
Then a vaccination campaign in the settlement helped to lift lockdowns and get schools and businesses back on track. Rose is now vaccinated and back in the classroom with her friends.
The vaccine she received was part of the COVAX Humanitarian Buffer. The initiative, funded and supported by the Government of Switzerland and the European Union, was launched to increase vaccine equity. It focuses on reaching refugees, undocumented migrants and persecuted minorities.
Rose’s classmate Robina has also been protected through the initiative. Initially, she hesitated to get the vaccine.
“My parents assured me that I would be safe, because they had both taken the jab and remained healthy,” she says. “This motivated me to get the vaccine to protect myself and my friends.”
The community health workers leading the effort
To reach students and their communities with the COVID-19 vaccines they need, village health teams are leading the effort. Supported by UNICEF and partner organizations, the teams work across 13 districts in this region of Uganda, aiming to provide vaccines to at least 80 per cent of the refugee population.
Their work is focused on helping to protect people from the virus, so they can prevent future lockdowns and keep young people in the classroom, ensuring they're learning and thriving.
Titus Jogo is a refugee officer helping to spearhead the effort. “The people know how COVID-19 disrupted our livelihoods,” he says. “They know we can’t risk going back to lockdowns. We can’t afford to close schools again.”
For 14-year-old Jilda, head girl at the Good Samaria School in the Palorinya Settlement, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a duty.
“As a leader, I must set an example for fellow pupils. It gives them trust and confidence in the vaccination process,” she says.
The chance to be back in school and learning is imperative for Jilda. She’s focused on studying to become a doctor.
Uganda has been identified as one of 34 priority countries in need of accelerated vaccine deployment, according to the COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery Partnership, launched by WHO, UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Less than 30 per cent of Uganda's population has received two doses of the vaccine.
The Government applied to take part in the initiative, supporting its accelerated country roll-out and ensuring the most vulnerable communities receive protection. The vaccination rate is now on the rise, and through these efforts, it’s not just students who are benefitting.
Community nurse Lillian Aciro goes door-to-door in the Maaji III community, another refugee settlement in northern Uganda. During her rounds, she meets mother-to-be Ajak, who is eight months pregnant. Lillian gives Ajak the COVID-19 vaccine in her home.
“I know the hospital will be full when I go to give birth, and without the vaccine, I am at a higher risk of getting COVID-19 and putting my baby in danger,” Ajak reflects.
How the mobilization campaign is creating awareness
Awareness of the various risks associated with COVID-19 is rising among these communities.
Stanley Karamira, who is a health worker, attributes much of that success to the Humanitarian Buffer, which airs messaging on radio talk shows that feature district leaders, church leaders and prominent members of the community. “We also have many posters in local languages plastered across the settlement,” he says.
Proximity and ease of access is also key. “We opened 16 vaccination sites in one settlement so everyone can reach a site by walking on foot,” says public health officer Geoffrey Ochan. “We also formed a mobile team to vaccinate in hotspots like markets. This way, it takes people minutes instead of hours to receive their vaccination, and they don’t have to choose between a day earning money or sitting on a bus.”
Digital records have also been crucial. UNICEF is helping health workers save time by providing automated ways to record vaccination details.
“This has eliminated the tedious recording process that used to take so much of our time,” says Ochan. “The old manual process had created a big delay in updating the central vaccination records, so it was difficult to tell who has had what dose.”
Thanks to improved tools and dedicated health workers supported by the COVAX Humanitarian Buffer, the COVID-19 vaccination rate among refugee communities is steadily increasing.
Among the newly protected is another expectant mother, Neema. She’s a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After receiving her vaccination, Neema remarks:
“My husband and I are expecting our fifth, as you can see. I am five months pregnant. And I am confident that I will deliver a nice, healthy baby.”